A new group is providing recommendations for addressing long-standing discriminatory practices.
The United States Department of Agriculture has a history of racial discrimination against Black, Indigenous and Hispanic farmers. Congressional reports, USDA civil rights investigations and audits, and court actions dating back to the 1960s document inequities in institutional practices and the administration of credit programs. To address this, the USDA has created a new Equity Commission that met for the first time Monday.
The 15-member council includes two Arkansans — Ronald Rainey, assistant vice president of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and Hazell Reed, executive director of the National Black Growers Council.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Reed said. “I’m very excited about it.”
The creation of the commission was prompted by a 2021 presidential executive order to advance racial equity through the federal government, as well as the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act. Section 1006 of the act directed USDA to create the Equity Commission and provided funding for the initiative. The purpose of the commission and its subcommittee on agriculture is to provide recommendations to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on policies, programs and actions needed to address racial equity issues within the USDA and its programs, including strengthening accountability.
“I commend the secretary and of course also President Biden for their foresight, and the Congress for supporting it, and their acknowledgement that these things have happened,” Reed said. “Too often people won’t acknowledge that we live in a racist society.”
Reed was born and raised on his family’s farm in St. Francis County in eastern Arkansas. They raised cotton, soybeans and some corn. A plant scientist by training, Reed earned a Master’s of Science degree at Penn State University and a Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas. Through his work with farmers, Reed has learned some of the biggest issues facing them are access to land and capital.
“There are things that are structured that have a negative impact on minorities and their ability to really be fully engaged in the agricultural enterprise,” he said.
The inaugural meeting of the Equity Commission is the latest step the USDA has taken toward addressing racial inequities. On Mar. 1, 2021, the USDA appointed Dewayne Goldmon as senior advisor for racial equity. Goldmon is an Arkansas farmer with more than 30 years of experience in the agricultural sector who previously served as executive director of the National Black Growers Council.
“Since I started, we’ve engaged in the serious work, and some of it is not pleasant, but we’ve engaged in the serious work of trying to transform this department into a racially equitable department,” he said.
Working with the USDA’s new Equity Commission will be important in continuing that work, but there will be challenges throughout this process such as gaining the public’s trust, Goldman said.
“We understand fully that because of this unpleasant history, that USDA is operating from a position of distrust,” he said. “I think we made a little progress, but we have a ways to go.”
Members will serve a two-year term on the USDA’s Equity Commission, which will host four public meetings this year. Public comments can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. The commission’s next meeting is tentatively scheduled for May.
Officials anticipate the commission will produce a final report by the summer of 2023. More information about the advisory council is available at www.usda.gov/equity-commission.